Robert E. Lee, Symbol Of The South's Greatest Mistake: It's Time To Disown The Civil War General, Richard Cohen, New York Daily News, April 26th 2011
The Opinion: It has taken a while, but it's about time Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War. The South was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend - swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism - has endured even past the civil rights era, when it became urgent to finally tell the "Lost Cause" to get lost. Now it's Lee's turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country - not worthy of the honors accorded him.
I confess to always being puzzled by the cult of Lee. Whatever his personal or military virtues, he offered himself to the cause of slavery. He owned slaves and fought in the courts to keep them. He commanded the vast army of a nation dedicated to the proposition that white people could own black people and sell them off as the owner saw fit. Such a man cannot be admired.
But he is. All over the South, particularly in his native Virginia, the cult of Lee is manifested in streets, highways and schools named for him. When I first moved to the Washington area, I used to marvel at these homages to the man. What was being honored? Slavery? Treason? Or maybe, for this is how I perceive him, no sense of humor? I also wondered what a black person was supposed to think. Chagrin or rage would be perfectly appropriate.
I kept thinking I must be missing something. I imagined all sorts of virtues in his face. He is always dignified in photos, a perfect pill of a man yet somehow adored by his men. They cheered him when he left Appomattox Court House, having just surrendered. They shouted, Hooray for Lee! Hooray for what?
Now comes Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, who in an essay for The New York Times gives us a Lee at odds with the one of gauzy myth. He was not the creature of crushing political pressure who had little choice but to pick his state over his country. In fact, members of his own family stuck with the Union.
"When Lee consulted his brothers, sister and local clergymen, he found that most leaned toward the Union," Pryor wrote. "At a grim dinner with two close cousins, Lee was told that they also intended to uphold their military oaths. . . . Sister Anne Lee Marshall unhesitatingly chose the Northern side, and her son outfitted himself in blue uniform." Pryor says that about 40% of Virginia officers "would remain with the Union forces."
After the war, the South embraced a mythology of victim hood. An important feature was the assertion that the war had been not about slavery at all but about states' rights. The secessionists themselves were not so shy. In their various declarations, they announced they were leaving the Union to preserve slavery. Lee not only accepted the Lost Cause myth, he propagated it and came to embody it.
Lee was a brilliant field marshal whose genius was widely acknowledged - Lincoln wanted him to command the Union forces. A commander of more modest talents might have been beaten sooner, might not have taken the war to the North (Gettysburg) and expended so many lives. Lee is an American Rommel, the German general who fought brilliantly, but for Hitler.
British novelist L. P. Hartleay's observation that "the past is a foreign country" cautions us all against facile judgments. In the antebellum South, there were plenty of people who recognized the evil of slavery and the folly of secession. Lee was not one of them and deserves no honor. In the awful war that began 150 years ago this month, he fought on the wrong side for the wrong cause. It's time for the South to honor the ones who were right.
Text Source: Washington Post April 25, 2011
Image Source: The Truth About Guns
CWL: The past is a foreign country to Richard Cohen. CWL understands that Lee was a slaveholder, who broke his oath of honorable allegiance made at West Point and who loved Virginia above his country. But to call Lee "an American Rommel . . . who fought for Hitler" demonizes the Confederacy. Complaining that Lost Cause ideology embraced 'victim hood' Cohen turns around and likens the Confederacy to Nazi Germany. As much as The Lost Cause promoters get it wrong so does Cohen get it wrong. The arrogance of his opinion discredits his argument that The Lost Cause promoters should look hard at the facts, less at their navels, and stop complaining about the negative images of themselves in the media.